How to Handle Thunderstorms

No matter your outdoor comfort level, finding yourself in a thunderstorm with lightning hitting in the distance is an uncomfortable feeling. “Was it ‘hide under a tree or absolutely don’t hide under a tree?’ This thunderstorm reality seems humorous now, but can be extremely dangerous if you are outside with no immediate form of shelter. So let’s sort this knowledge out once and for all!

Written by

Bronwyn Laurence

Published on

November 8, 2021

No matter your outdoor comfort level, finding yourself in a thunderstorm with lightning hitting in the distance is an uncomfortable feeling. “Was it ‘hide under a tree or absolutely don’t hide under a tree?’ Should we look for high or low ground or just run for it? Why can’t I think of the most logical decision right now?!” We’ve been there. We feel you. This thunderstorm reality seems humorous now, but can be extremely dangerous if you are outside with no immediate form of shelter. So let’s sort this knowledge out once and for all!

First off, let me be clear and say that direct lightning strikes are very rare. However, the dangers that come along from an indirect strike, i.e. lightning hits the ground near you, travels through the ground as electric current, and then enters your body, are to be taken seriously. This is the situation we will mostly be focusing on, as the advice for avoiding proximity strikes also encompasses direct strikes.

@arizonahighways / Instagram

Now remember, prevention is the best cure. To avoid being struck by lightning, we first and foremost advise not going hiking when the forecast is represented by a lightning bolt sign. Also going early in the morning is ideal, as most thunderstorms form in the afternoon, especially in the summer. If you are hiking, be aware of the clouds in the sky. You do not have to be a meteorologist to see dark clouds forming and moving towards you. Having a backup plan like staying low in the valleys instead of high on the ridge-lines or knowing where the closest shelter is at all times will make you a valuable hiking companion. And of all things, be ok with turning around. So many hikers will say “maybe the storm will pass so we should just keep going”. This is a mistake. It is unsafe. And can be famous last words. It is always best practice to turn around when the first person feels uncomfortable, instead of trying to convince or shame the person into continuing. There are no ego trips allowed when weather is forming.

Now even with all of this knowledge and awareness it is still entirely possible to find yourself in the midst of a storm. If this is the case, the ground rule is to not panic. Stay calm, take a few deep breaths and remind your friends in an assuring voice to do the same. Most injuries happen in these situations because people panic and act carelessly.

Second, don’t run. You cannot run faster than a storm, and risk falling and injuring yourself. Also, lightning can hit you even when it is not directly above you. Forget all about the rules of counting Mississippi's and hear this now: If the time between lightning and thunder is less than 30 seconds then the lightning is close enough to reach you.

Be sure you are not near any metal objects or bodies of water, as those conduct electricity and thus carry the lightning’s current. If you have metal ski poles, metal in your backpack frame or anything else leave them 100 yards away from you. Stand away from metal fences or poles, and if you ever hear anything buzzing get away from it as soon as possible.

Do not try to take shelter at a high point. Avoid empty fields where you are the tallest object and solo landmarks like one big tree or shelter since lightning is attracted to it and you by proxy. Look for a valley or depression in the earth and head there. Do not try to hide anywhere where something could fall on you if it is struck. Read: avoid lone trees, under a rock face, steep slopes, caves or rock cavity.

Now that is a lot of Don’ts. So what can you do?

Find a valley full of many trees, which will be able to distribute the current between them all when one is struck, minimizing the potential current that could travel to you. Stand about 25 yards away from other members of your group. If just one person gets injured there are still people who can help you; if everyone gets struck, no one can help. Then sit in a ball — standing on the balls of your feet, crouching so the heels touch, with your head on your knees and arms wrapped around your knees. The key is to stand on something insulating like a rock or your plastic backpack. You do not want your feet touching the ground, especially when the ground is soaked with water from the storm. Remember that electricity loves traveling through water just as much as your Scoprio friend? Well this is how the indirect strike works, and what we’re seeking to avoid.

@wardaner / Instagram

Next, you wait. As patiently and calmly as you can. Storms tend to pass quickly, but be sure to know based on our 30 second rule above that it is far enough away to start moving safely again.

To recap: get low, geographically (while still avoiding things that are attractive to lightning such as barren fields, bodies of water and metal) and physically (crouching in the aforementioned position). Find shelter in a place where something is not likely to fall on you if struck. Stand away from your friends, and on something that is a poor conductor of electricity, like rock or plastic. Only continue on after you are sure it is safe to do so.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, please remember that the best way to avoid a thunderstorm is prevention.

We hope you leave this article feeling clear and well-equipped to stay safe during a thunderstorm, and equally hope you will never need to use any of this information!

Happy hiking.

Bronwyn xx

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